Every week, IRIN’s team of editors takes a look ahead at what’s lurking on the humanitarian radar and curates a selection of the best reports, opinion, and journalism you may have missed:
Not another referendum
The race is on to Turkey’s mid-April constitutional referendum, and a ride that has been fairly weird already (one parliamentary debate involved an alleged bite to the leg) is only set to get wilder. Campaigning hard for a yes vote that would shift power away from the parliament and towards the presidency, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week seemed to escalate to threats against Europe following bans on his ministers’ politicking abroad – he’s also just promised to review Turkey’s controversial migration deal with the EU. Erdogan’s allies say the proposed constitutional revamp will streamline Turkey’s system of governance; his opponents say it looks an awful lot like post-failed coup authoritarianism. And what of the country’s 15 million Kurds, many of whom – the UN estimates between 355,000 and half a million – have been displaced by recent violence between the government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey? Perhaps surprisingly, despite Erdogan’s tough talk (and action) against the PKK, polls suggest many Kurdish voters are undecided. As Turkey heads towards elections and Kurds fight separate battles in northern Syria and Iraq, it’s an excellent reminder that the minority is no monolith.
Remember the long fight for debt relief for developing countries? Well it looks like the problem of unsustainable debt is back. As many as 40 African states are showing signs of strain. The factors that drove the debt problem in the early 80s have reappeared. Commodity-based economies are struggling and Western interest rates are low, encouraging borrowing. There has been a “debt explosion” in Angola, Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa, according to the MG. But for spectacularly gruesome implosion you need to look at Mozambique.
Last April, the IMF suspended aid after revelations that Mozambique had been hiding a debt of $1.16 billion. State-owned companies had borrowed the money from Swiss financial services firm Credit Suisse, and the Russian VTB bank. The loans, guaranteed by the Mozambican government, were supposed to be invested in the fishing industry. Instead, they were diverted to purchase arms. This week Mozambique missed a $119 million payment due on the Credit Suisse loan. The gaping hole in Mozambique’s finances has hit social spending, and the reputation of a country that once was a poster child for debt relief.
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, is about to recommence grants for Afghan refugees returning home from Pakistan. The programme, which was halted late last year, has come under fire, in particular from Human Rights Watch. The group says UNHCR is complicit in Pakistan’s violation of international law because it provides a cash incentive for refugees to leave while they’re under intense pressure to so from the Pakistani authorities (Pakistan pushed 600,000 Afghans over the border last year). UNHCR has strongly denied that claim, arguing that the cash grants are there to help Afghans who choose to return to their war-torn homeland. At the heart of the issue is the concept of choice – and whether the refugees really have any. Expect the debate to heat up again when the grant programme starts up on 1 April.
Drought and al-Shabab
In times of crisis, some find opportunity. This appears to be the worrying case now in parts of Somalia, where a prolonged drought coupled with chronic insecurity and a dire absence of effective governance have conspired to leave half the population in need of food assistance. As the country teeters on the brink of famine, a quarter of a million people have left their homes in search of sustenance. Al-Shabab, the Islamist insurgency that controls vast swathes of rural Somalia, and whose very presence has contributed to the drought’s degeneration into a major food crisis, now seems to be capitalising on catastrophe. A security source with extensive on-the-ground experience in all areas of the country confirmed reports that al-Shabab had stepped up recruitment, focusing on young displaced people, especially around camps for the displaced, notably those near the town of Baidoa that house tens of thousands of people. Recruitment “opportunities are increasing with the drought. This is certainly going on in Baidoa,” said the source. He added that the idea that the insurgency still recruits mainly through coercion and abduction was mistaken. “If you have bored [displaced] teenagers, you don’t have to promise them much if they are just staring at four mud walls.” A view echoed by a participant at a meeting of young Somalis in Mogadishu in December who said: “Part of the reason youth are joining al-Shabab is because of the widespread unemployment in the country.”
Did you miss it?
Costly UN peacekeeping missions around the globe with often little in the way of tangible results and financed in largest part by the United States are anathema to President Donald Trump’s administration. Others see them as a cost-effective way of keeping a lid on conflicts and preventing graver humanitarian disasters. Those in the latter camp will have endured a torrid week as reports mushroomed of huge US cuts to UN peacekeeping missions, from Darfur to Mali, from Congo to South Sudan. However, as this IRIN briefing points out, it’s not as easy for Trump to swing the axe as he might like. If he gets a big cut to the State Department’s peacekeeping budget through Congress, and that is no given, it’s then up to the UN and the Security Council as a whole to decide where the axe will fall. And, by the way, is a hard look at peacekeeping such a bad thing anyway? If UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is smart, he may be able to use US financial pressure to leverage the kind of reforms he wants. This story isn’t going away, and we’ll be following up with a deeper dive into what reform could and should look like, and exploring whether the Chinese might look to step into the US vacuum and play an increased role.
It’s often assumed that would-be migrants from the Horn of Africa are only interested in moving westwards towards Europe, but a steady stream of mainly Ethiopians and Somalis are still trying to reach the Gulf States via Yemen, undeterred by the ongoing state of war in that country. A significant minority also head south to take advantage of the perceived economic opportunities in relatively prosperous South Africa. The so-called “southern route” has been largely neglected by researchers with the last significant attempt to map trends along this route undertaken by the International Organization for Migration in 2009. Now the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat has released this long overdue update to that study.
According to the “Smuggled South” report, around 15,000 people, most of them Ethiopians, set off on the southern route every year, slightly less than the 17,000 to 20,000 estimated to be using the route when the IOM study was done. Although the numbers are down – probably the result of an increasingly hostile attitude towards foreigners in South Africa and more restrictive asylum policies – smugglers’ profits have increased. Unlike in 2009, smuggling along the southern route is now routinely accompanied by violence and exploitation, with smugglers often holding migrants captive until ransom demands are met. South Africa may become a much less attractive destination for economic migrants in the future as the government seeks to close a legal loophole that allows asylum applicants to work while their applications are being processed.
(TOP PHOTO: A refugee from Afghanistan looks on from a camp near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. CREDIT: David Longstreath/IRIN)